Friday, December 14, 2012

Connecticut shooting thoughts

There's still not much good information about the horrific massacre in Connecticut, and the facts in these things can change at an alarming pace.  So I'm not going to pretend that this post is anything more than a jumble of thoughts.  Really, I'm mostly writing this because it's less bad than the other option, which is repeatedly refreshing news sites to get the newest painful details.

1.  You can kill a lot of people with any kind of gun in the right context.  Right now, it seems like this is the variety of gun the shooter used: a Bushmaster AR-15.

It's big and scary-looking and the idea of one of these even being within a hundred feet of a kid makes me queasy--but it's not an automatic.  It didn't have to be.  Semi-auto AR-15s kill people pretty efficiently, because that's what they were designed to do.  When they were developed, they were lauded for their ability to cause grievous exit wounds.  Don't think about that.

And there are, in fact, lots and lots of guns that are designed to kill people efficiently.  Pretty much anything that isn't a long hunting rifle can facilitate an atrocity in a sufficiently crowded setting.

Just something to keep in mind when crafting a policy response.

2.  Marginal improvements help.  Building off the above, it should be clear that there's no perfect way to stop these things from happening.  Even a total firearms ban--political and legal infeasibility aside--would leave many millions of guns in circulation. But that's a reason to look for solutions at the margin, not to throw up our hands.

Fewer large magazines mean shooters won't be able to tote private arsenals around with them quite so easily.  Fewer concealable guns limit wielders' ability to move in and out of public locations.  Restrictions on sale don't prevent guns from circulating, but they'd surely raise the price of firearms--on the black market or otherwise.  Stepping up enforcement does the same.  And so on.

Is there an appropriate mix of rules that will stop every incident?  Almost definitely not.  But if your goal is simply preventing as much violence as possible, each little rule, restriction or limit on gun ownership helps.

3.  The "armed bystanders could have stopped it" argument should be gone for good.  Unless you want to arm schoolteachers.

More than that, the mere existence of children should remind us that not every potential target can be hardened.

4.  Mental health plays a role, too. Like the points above suggest, I'm basically in favor of getting rid of as many guns as we can.  But the shooter didn't just wake up today possessed by an evil spirit.  Something happened in his mind to make him do this, and limiting the capacity of people like him to hurt others doesn't prevent us from trying to keep people like him from wanting to, as well.  I don't know if the guy was just an angry kid whose view of the world was warped beyond recognition, or if he had actually taken leave of his senses thanks to some underlying mental health issue, but there's no cognizable motivation that we don't have an institutional response to.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What's with all the optimistic partisans?

Does anyone else think it's odd that, at least among the chattering classes, optimism about the substance of the Republican policy platform translates so consistently into optimism about the GOP's political prospects?

There's no obvious reason this should be the case.  I happen to believe in the fundamental correctness of a large chunk of the Democratic platform but I don't think being correct confers the Democrats any particular political advantage.  Plenty of times, I've headed to the polls and cast my vote for a Democratic candidate, knowing full well he or she would probably lose.  Nothing makes me think my experience here is unusual: the support of high-information partisans isn't likely to be swayed by the political landscape.  

But then you look at a rundown of election predictions, and you see the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Kathryn Jean Lopez, George Will, Michael Barone, and Jim Pethokoukis all prognosticating a Romney victory by middling-to-considerable margins, and virtually no Democrats expecting any such thing, and you have to think: what is driving this?  Why is the category "pundits who believe Romney will win" essentially a subset of the category "pundits who are Republicans"?  Shouldn't there be some panicky Democrats in there, as well?  Even Republicans who are expecting a Romney loss are somewhat more optimistic about his prospects than the polls suggest (e.g., Ross Douthat).  Is there some partisan aspect to the interpretation of poll data that I've missed?  I'm a long way from DC, but it sure seems to me that "I want lower marginal tax rates" and, say, "I believe Latin voters are systemically undersampled, skewing the polls against Obama" are perfectly compatible beliefs... that nonetheless never seem to coexist in the wild.  Strange, right?

I don't have any great insight here.  Just wanted to point out another little bit of pre-election oddness.

Modern mandates

Yglesias, on why mandates don't exist anymore:
A great Ron Brownstein column on the demographic questions hanging over the presidential race ends with a lame sixth question: "Can anyone win a mandate to govern?" 
The answer is "no." A mandate is not a real thing, so there's nothing a candidate can do—up to and including a Democrat carrying North Carolina and Indiana—to win one. Probably the best way to think of a mandate is as a historical artifact of the poorly sorted congressional politics of yore. Politicians in that framework were cross-pressured between partisan and ideological loyalties. A president with a "mandate"—think Ronald Reagan in 1981 or Lyndon Johnson in 1965—could unify the ideological factions within his own party while fracturing the other side's coalition. Modern politics just doesn't work like that. Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk all vote a more reliably conservative line than Ben Nelson, Joe Manchin, or Claire McCaskill. Different politicians disagree with each other about different things, but the parties are basically coherent ideological teams. And although there may be compromises to be forged, there are no mandates to be won.
I think Yglesias is basically correct here, but he's leaving out part of the answer.  Modern opinion polling (and its ever-increasing use in political positioning) plays a role, as well.  National political candidates simply don't campaign on viewpoints that are held by a small minority of the electorate.  Even when politicians actually hold unpopular views, they rarely, if ever, are a public point of contention.  As a result, it's hard to say that an election result ever represents a definitive rejection of a particular set of views (and consequently a definitive embrace of another set of views).

Absent any means of predicting the public's response to particular policies or positions, you'd expect candidates to generally clash on topics where their views were the furthest apart.  But because polling lets candidates know in advance who will win those arguments, you find that candidates usually refuse to engage on issues where they disagree the most, and often end up instead stepping on each others' toes trying to win a slim majority on subjects where both sides generate strong support.

(One irony is that, on issues where a whole spectrum of views are possible, two positions with roughly even amounts of support are likely to be quite similar in substance.  Of course, "I'm slightly better than the other guy" isn't very persuasive, so parties are left trying to exaggerate their differences on these issues, while ignoring the issues on which their differences are more pronounced.  This is probably largely responsible for the strange phenomenon of low-information voters believing "both parties are the same."  Come to think of it, this may also explain much of the attraction of culture war issues for campaigns: more binary viewpoints mean less opportunity for the losing side to triangulate, and less confusion over the parties' distinctions.)

Another way of saying the same thing: a "mandate" represents the discovery that voters widely support (or reject) a particular point of view.  When everyone knows what the voters think far in advance of an election, any political party worth its salt will embrace (or dodge) those views to whatever extent it can.  As a result, policy outcomes are less election-driven and more poll-driven; policies with widespread support are less likely to be propelled into existence by major electoral victories and more likely to emerge, in more-or-less the same form, no matter who wins an election.

Time is up

Maybe there's a lot to be said about the presidential election still, but it all boils down to Nate Silver's latest tweet:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

You can't kill an idea. You can't kill Mittmentum.

This Chait post is nearly five days old--ancient history!--but I just found it, and it echoes my feelings on the election so well that I couldn't not share:
In recent days, the vibe emanating from Mitt Romney’s campaign has grown downright giddy. Despite a lack of any evident positive momentum over the last week — indeed, in the face of a slight decline from its post-Denver high — the Romney camp is suddenly bursting with talk that it will not only win but win handily. (“We’re going to win,” said one of the former Massachusetts governor’s closest advisers. “Seriously, 305 electoral votes.”) 
This is a bluff. Romney is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy... 
...Obama enjoys a clear electoral college lead. He is ahead by at least a couple points in enough states to make him president. Adding to his base of uncontested states, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin would give Obama 271 electoral votes. According to the current polling averages compiled at, Obama leads Nevada by 3.5 percent, Ohio by 2.9 percent, and Wisconsin by 4 percent. Should any of those fail, Virginia and Colorado are nearly dead even. (Obama leads by 0.7 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively.) If you don’t want to rely on Nate Silver — and you should rely on him! — the polling averages at realclearpolitics, the conservative-leaning site, don’t differ much, either... 
Obama’s lead is narrow — narrow enough that the polling might well be wrong and Romney could win. But he is leading, his lead is not declining, and the widespread perception that Romney is pulling ahead is Romney’s campaign suckering the press corps with a confidence game.  
 As we saw following the first debate, media chatter matters. The strangely persistent idea that the country is in the thrall of Mittmentum--an idea for which there is absolutely no empirical support at the moment--may not result in the landslide victory that Romney's camp is prognosticating, but sure might churn up an extra point or two for Romney in the final balance, which is plenty to sway the election. You'd think that reporters would take steps to limit their own impact on events, like psychological researchers instituting a double-blind to prevent the very act of observation from contaminating experimental results. You'd be wrong. The Fourth Estate's best solution has been to cover its eyes and pretend away the obvious feedback loop; this has the nifty side effect of preemptively absolving its mouthpieces from even the possibility of malpractice, because in the immortal not-quite words of Uncle Ben, with no power comes no responsibility. "If Romney says he's winning, who are we to second-guess him?" you can hear the editors of America saying. "He sounds pretty sure of himself, it's all news, and it's a wash in the end, so let's run with it."

Other, less determinedly self-deluded institutions are, by contrast, completely aware of the state of things, and as the Romney campaign has demonstrated, quite happy to take advantage of the media's strange blind spot.

The situation could of course be remedied by fostering a general respect for numbers and quantitative techniques in newsrooms, so that the drumbeat of optimistic expectations from the Romney camp would be drowned out by the drumbeat of polls confirming that the Romney camp is full of it. But people don't go to j-school because they're good at math, and statistics make for crappy copy anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Snap polls do matter--just not as polls

It's late and my head isn't feeling so great, so this will be quick.  But there's something that's been bugging me since the end of the debate and I want to get it off my chest.

The irritating idea is pretty much summed up by this Greg Sargent tweet:

Sargent is especially determined to remind us that snap polls "tell us nothing"; he tweeted something to that effect no fewer than seven times.  But other pundits on the left are saying the same, and although I don't follow nearly as many right-pundits, I bet they're even more eager to remind us that snap polls don't matter, given how ugly the initial results were for Romney.

And to cautious media figures with an understanding of statistics, I'm sure nothing could seem more perfectly obvious.  Snap polls about "who won" aren't likely to be terribly accurate (results vary massively between polls, which should be evidence enough of their unreliability).  Even if you could determine which candidate America believed won the debate, there's simply no way of knowing if lots or a few or any voters will move to the winning side as a consequence. So that's that, right?  The only way to find out who won is to wait and see.  The polls tell you nothing.

But wait a second.  The polls tell you nothing about what?  They tell you nothing about what people  who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate, think about the debate.  But the demographic of "people who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate," is completely unimportant--primarily because it starts shrinking the moment the debate ends, and will shrink nearly to nonexistence by the time the election is held.

By contrast, that demographic's counterpart--people who have heard media coverage of the debate--will continue to grow until the day of the election.  It will eventually encompass the vast majority of voters.  So what's really important here is not predicting how the debate, standing alone, will impact the views of voters, but how the debate, and its aftermath, will impact the views of voters.

And towards that end, the snap polls are very important.  Not because they're necessarily scientifically accurate, but because their rough gauge of voter sentiment will give a cue to the media on how to report the debate.  Obama win, Romney win, draw, whatever.  And then that view will color all subsequent coverage of the debate.  And soon enough, lots of voters who didn't exactly "watch" the debate will be able to tell you what happened, because CNN will have told them, because the snap polls told CNN.  And even the people that did watch the debate will be reminded of the moments that reinforce the outcome that the snap polls have found to have occurred, and soon, those moments will be mostly what they remember too.  And pundits and reporters will start using shorthand to refer to the debate--"The first debate, which Romney won," or "The second debate, mostly remembered for BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN"--and the actual diverse range of responses and reactions reflected in the snap polls will be smoothed into a single media-approved take, which, I suspect, probably will not be "There were many diverging opinions about who came off more favorably, roughly forming a bell curve with its peak over +16 Obama."

So would Sargent be correct in decrying the conspiracy of silence by CNN and its cohort, in which everyone pretends that snap polls are a deeply meaningful glance into the collective American consciousness?  Absolutely he would.  But is he right to say the snap polls tell us nothing?  Absolutely not.  They tell us a tremendous amount about the range of possible reactions to this debate going forward.  In fact, I find Sargent's view a little disturbing, because it suggests a deeply distorted view of American politics and his own role in it.  It pretends that what really matters is the opinion of a fictional mass of undecided Americans, which he appears to conceive as a passive entity that sits down in front of a TV for 90 minutes, watches Mitt and Barack verbally punch it out, makes a decision, and is done with this whole "election" thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm sure it's easier for the press to pretend it's watching the crowd watch the show... but in reality, the crowd is watching the press watch the crowd watch the press watch the crowd watch the show.  The press wishing otherwise won't make the situation any less complicated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Chuck Todd told me the next 18 hours will be the most important in the election

Personally, I would have thought the most important 18 hours would come sometime November 6th, but who am I to argue with Chuck Todd?  I guess that means I better livetweet this.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ryan's Big Debut Was a Damp Squib, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Joe Biden

Unsurprisingly, I'm of the view that Biden won.

But what I found especially satisfying is how thoroughly Biden humiliated Ryan. Not in the sense of running circles around him argumentatively, but in the sense of actually humiliating him. The laughs, the constant interruptions, the muttered "Oh my god...," they all conveyed the same message: "This scrub congressman is not worth my time, or yours."

It resonates with informed liberals because most of us realize by now that this is the only correct response to the Paul Ryan Phenomenon. Ryan's a faux wonk: he's built his entire career by successfully communicating the sense that he's some sort of brilliant numbers man. The non-wonk media has been on occasion completely bamboozled by this charade. The last debate highlighted the problem rather well: nobody on TV is very interested in, much less capable of, checking the figures behind Ryan's (and now, Romney's) dubious claims, so simply countering his statistics with other, more accurate statistics won't work.

So Biden said the only thing that CAN be said in this situation: "You're lying." He said it over and over, with words and laughs and incredulous looks at the camera. Predictably, conservatives are freaking out, because Paul Ryan was their answer to progressives' utter dominance of the policy game. This was supposed to be a debate about The Numbers, which is to say it was supposed to be a debate in which Paul Ryan said some numbers, and conservatives, largely institutionally incapable of processing them on their own (because, remember, actual policy wonks are all on the other side of the aisle), get to reaffirm that this guy knows what he's talking about. How couldn't he? He sounds so smart! And of course that's what conservatives were hoping the rest of the country would see and think too, probably right down to Joe Biden himself.

But Biden, like every halfway intelligent progressive who knows a thing or two about policy (and I'm not saying Biden's some brilliant policy mind, but decades of congressional service are worth something in that department) knows that Paul Ryan's public image is borderline fraudulent. And for probably the first time in Ryan's career, he didn't hesitate to call him a fraud, to his face, on national TV. There was going to be no deference this time. If Ryan wanted to make his points, he was going to have to scrap for them, not just gussy them up in cargo cult policy talk.

To Ryan's credit, he fought back. Eventually. But Ryan's not much for scrapping. Down-in-the-dirt political brawling is toxic to his Libertarian Nerd persona, and really, the persona is all he's got, politics-wise. Biden threw mud on Ryan till Ryan dropped the Poindexter act and became Just Another Politician. In other words, till he became like Joe Biden himself, except without the experience or demeanor.

You could still be of the opinion that Ryan won, I guess. But I think it would be hard to watch the stammering kid at last night's debate, unable to find a statistic to counter Biden's drumbeat retort that the statistics are fake, and see the future of the Republican Party. Ryan was the GOP's secret weapon, and his superior intellect was supposed to run roughshod over Biden the clown. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, he was met with open dismissiveness. That's got to sting, for Ryan and for the party that's decided he's their leading light.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I might experimentally live-tweet this debate

Or I might not. But if I do, it'll be here: @417_AM.

Three(ish) thoughts about FiveThirtyEight

By far the most entertaining campaign news of the week was that has been increasingly serving as central command for the Republican self-delusion brigade--had broken the Romney zero bound, and was now showing Obama with a two-point lead.  Whoops.

Presumably, this will lead to the creation  (One also wonders if, should Obama's lead continue to grow, would follow, and so on, until, eventually, there existed a perfect 1-to-1 ratio between American Republicans and Republican-leaning alternative polling sites, with the number of adjectives in the URL corresponding to a perfect ordinal ranking of individual partisanship.  I digress.)

But the news also reminded me, yet again, of the greatness of  Okay, I know--this isn't exactly bleeding-edge material.  That doesn't mean it isn't worth stepping back, from time to time, and appreciating the ingeniousness of Nate Silver's operation.  Lots of people try to predict elections, after all.  But somehow, nobody does it quite as well as Silver.

Considering that it's not conducting any polling itself, or generating any new data, how can FiveThirtyEight's model possibly outperform rigorous, academic election results models? In a word: volume.  Instead of deliberating extensively over the soundness of every variable, Silver has simply tossed everything he can think of into his model (polls, economy, history, and, I believe, in a major statistical faux pas, the model's own output).  The result, it turns out, just works. Add enough, and the flaws introduced by any particularly sloppy variables tend to get smoothed over by the sheer number of other variables.  Those variables have flaws too, but since there's no real reason to expect them all to bias the model in the same direction, it all more-or-less evens out in the end. Could you make a case that he should exclude, say, the effect of the economy ?  Sure, but if you did that, you'd also have to make a case that he should exclude any number of other variables, and you'd end up with a statistically-unimpeachable-but-basically-useless model.  It would no doubt be described as "elegant" and it would no doubt predict the wrong outcome as often as not.

So bravo, Mr. Silver, for your function-over-form statistics.

Still, the site is not without problems.  The prediction model is as great as ever, but unfortunately, since moving to the Times, the site's actual blogging hasn't really reflected that greatness.  It's hard to pin down, exactly, but something about the Times' style guidelines seems to be suffocating Silver's writing a bit.  The inverted pyramid, wholly inappropriate for blogging, has slowly crept into his prose--more and more of the articles have been dedicated to rehashing previously-explained concepts.  (I swear he's explained the idea of a gradually-receding "convention bump" at least twenty times in the last month.  Just write it once and link to it, man!)

But more than anything, I wish the site took a little more time to explain the use (or in some cases, uselessness) of some of the numbers it presents.  For instance, the "Return on Investment Index," which the site describes as "the likelihood that an individual voter will determine the electoral college winner."  What it actually means by this, as far as I can tell, is "Assuming that an individual voter determines the electoral college winner, what is the likelihood that he or she hails from a particular state?"  (Right now, Nevada comes in first, at 11.4%.)

The problem here is that the measure's results are conditional on an event that is so infinitesimally improbable that it may as well be impossible.  It's like saying "What are the chances someone who is struck by lightning four times while playing in the Stanley Cup final will flip a coin and get heads?"  The correct answer is simultaneously "50%" and "It doesn't matter because that will never happen."

And then there's the now-cast.  The now-cast is simultaneously useful and opaque.  It purports to measure the probability of a particular election outcome, assuming the election occurred today.  "What's the point of that?" I asked at first.  "The election isn't being held today, no matter how much Mitt Romney might want it to be over already."  But the now-cast provides a little bit of extra information about the model's election day predictions, even if the site's own tracker doesn't make this explicit.  Because Silver is determining the probability of a future event, there are really two potential sources of error in his predictions.  First, there's the chance that current polling might be wrong.  And then there's the chance that events might change between now and the election.  The now-cast conveniently strips out the second source of error, and tells us exactly how sure the model is that Barack Obama currently leads the race (98% sure, as it turns out).  Nonetheless, FiveThirtyEight only grants Obama about an 85% chance of winning the election, which gives us a somewhat more sophisticated view of the state of the race than would be immediately obvious: Romney can still plausibly win almost a sixth of the time, but only because, almost a sixth of the time, some external event causes a shift in the polls.  Coasting and hoping for a lucky roll of the statistical dice won't do anymore.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why the Ryan pick is bad, in simplest terms

First, remember that most people don't know who Paul Ryan is, and the ones that do know don't know very much about him.

Romney gets two benefits from picking Paul Ryan.
        A.  People who like Ryan (i.e., movement conservatives, William Saletan) will be more likely to vote for Romney.
        B.  Romney can run ads and do events that say, "Hey, look at this sexy new person on my ticket, who isn't me."

Obama also gets two benefits from Romney picking Paul Ryan.
        A.  People who don't like Ryan (liberals, some moderates) will be more likely to vote for Obama.
        B.  Obama can run ads that say, "Hey, Romney plans on getting rid of Medicare and giving you slowly shrinking vouchers instead."

Who would you rather be in this situation?  Obama or Romney?

Paul Ryan was a bad choice

Paul Ryan is simply not a very good VP pick.

The dirty little secret about VP picks is that, usually, they don't matter.  You append one relatively-unknown white guy's name to another relatively-better-known white guy's name, and the public yawns and votes however they were already planning to vote.  

Of course, sometimes they do matter, some.  They might net a few extra points in the VP's home state.  They  might provide some short-term buzz.  But most of the time, when they matter, they hurt, not help, the nominee.  They add some sort of circus sideshow to campaign that drags down the actual candidate.  Think Palin, or Eagleton.  

This is hardly groundbreaking analysis; it's almost accepted as fact in the political world.  Which is why most VP picks proceed along the first-do-no-harm principle: someone who is broadly attractive and unobjectionable.

And if you're talking about the optics of Paul Ryan, he's a perfectly decent choice.  Maybe he's a little unexperienced, but it's nothing next to Palin.  He's certainly a good speaker and a good advocate for Romney.  He'll provide a boost in a state where Romney could use a boost.

But there's a problem, and it's a big one.  Romney is a man between worlds.  His party base continues to fight to tether him to their agenda, while Romney and most political operators seem to know that running on the agenda of the GOP base is not going to win any elections.  Simply put, radical cut-it-all-ism isn't terribly popular.  So Romney has, up until now, dodged the issue.  He's simply avoided taking much in the way of positions at all.  Is he a moderate Massachusetts governor who authored the precursor to Obamacare, or is he a Chick-Fil-A scarfing Tea Party figurehead?  It's hard to say, and while everybody has their suspicions one way or another, his candidacy created a sort of Rorschach test for policy preferences that ultimately benefited the GOP.  Liberals aren't too afraid of him and conservatives think they can keep him in line.  It's awkward for the campaign, but it's sort of worked, too.

Well, until now.  Because by picking Paul Ryan, Romney has finally taken a side.  Ryan's policy proposals dramatically outshine whatever weak sauce Romney has offered thus far; regardless of what Mitt actually endorses, he'll be forever inextricably linked to Ryan's budget. His incredibly, incredibly unpopular budget.  

And while VP picks don't matter, policy platforms do.

How could this happen?  My guess: 2008 all over again.  The Romney team saw they had a boring candidate, but a candidate with the moderate politics most likely to win.  They wanted to add some glitz to their campaign; they wanted to up the wattage.  So they picked a glitzy, high-wattage VP.  

Unfortunately, they're not going to end up with an exciting ticket trumpeting moderate politics.  They're going to end up with a boring ticket trumpeting wingnut politics.  Just like McCain picking Palin made everyone question McCain's judgment, Romney picking Ryan is going to make everyone reconsider Romney's views.  The basic principle of vice presidential candidates remains the same: the nominee is the nominee is the nominee, and everything that happens on the campaign is about the nominee.  No one is going to forget that if Mitt Romney wins the election, Mitt Romney will be president.  Not Paul Ryan.

Alternatively, maybe they just liked the alliteration.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Football is hell

Governor Mark Dayton landed himself in hot water (again) yesterday, with (again) some probably ill-advised extemporaneous rambling.  This time, about a recent spate of off-season Viking arrests:
"Idle time is the devil's play," Dayton said, referring to the NFL's offseason. "It means that young males who are heavily armored and heavily psyched as necessary to carry out their job are probably more susceptible to being in bars at 2 o'clock [in the morning] and having problems. It doesn't excuse it. It just says this probably comes with it." 
"Shake one of their hands and you know that this is someone who is not your ordinary citizen. They're heavily armored, heavily psyched to do what they have to do and go out there. It's, basically, slightly civilized war," Dayton said. 
 "Then they take that into society. Much as soldiers come back, they've been in combat or the edge of it and suddenly that adjustment back to civilian life is a real challenge. And that's part of the reality. That's not to say it's good and it shouldn't be improved. It should."
Cue totally predictable self-righteous freaking out.  "War is hell!  And football is a game!" cry the scolds of Minnesota in unison.  

Now, obviously, Dayton should have known better, but "I should have known better" is basically the dude's motto at this point.  But this would also be an excellent time to point out that he has a decent substantive case.  Contra, well, pretty much everyone, football isn't just a game.  It's physically punishing in a way that soldiering rarely ever is.  Enlisting doesn't mean your life becomes Saving Private Ryan every single day--or ever.  And if anyone wants to compare the measurable physical trauma of being a soldier (no bonus points for Being a Hero!) with the measurable physical trauma of playing football, it's easy to see who's going to come out ahead.  Being a soldier entails a relatively high risk of getting injured, but at least the Army tries to help you avoid repeated concussive blows to the head.

It might also be a good time to point out that, American Heroes or not, soldiers returning from a war zone aren't exactly known for their ability to reintegrate easily with civilian society.  Vets commit crimes too--a lot more than normal people--and hand-wringing over Dayton's comparison just hides the more important commonality: that young men who have developed in physically and mentally destructive environments of any description make poor neighbors, whatever amount of arms-length adulation you slop onto them afterwards.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why we need to fix health care, in one anecdote

From the Attorney General's court filing in the Fairview-Accretive scandal here in Minnesota:
Carol Wall’s experience at Fairview Riverside ER was similar. Carol is 53 years old, has a Master’s Degree, and is a project manager for Securian Financial Group. On January 21, 2012, Carol began vaginally hemorrhaging large amounts of blood. At the Fairview Riverside Emergency Room, she was brought to an examination table and put in a gown. Her condition worsened, with tremendous pain, cramping, and wooziness from the blood loss. While Carol was waiting to be diagnosed, a woman with a computer cart wheeled up to the exam table and told her she owed about $300. The woman insisted that Carol pay money as she bled profusely. Carol was vulnerable and gave the woman her credit card. 
On a Sunday two weeks later, Carol awoke from a nap and couldn’t talk or breathe. She was partially paralyzed. The paramedics took her to the Emergency Room at Fairview Riverside Hospital, where she was hooked up to blood pressure devices and had neurological tests. Before Carol was stabilized, a woman with a mobile computer cart again drifted up to her examination table and asked for money. Carol was having a stroke, and her husband kicked the woman out. Carol was then transported to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where she was treated for a stroke caused by a blood clot to the brain.
Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Obama's biggest mistake

CBS asked him what it was and, well, he got it half right:
When I think about what we've done well and what we haven't done well...the mistake of my first term—couple of years—was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.
This is actually a pretty interesting answer from Obama.  On one hand, it's a bit like going to a job interview and saying your greatest weakness is working too hard.  "Getting the policy right" isn't really a mistake, after all.

But if you ignore the hope-y change-y stuff at the end, his first sentence is a nail-on-the-head description of what went wrong in the Obama administration for about two and a half years.  Obama seems to have spent half his first term laboring under the delusion that well-chosen policy could solve the Gordian knot of congressional politics.  Here, "getting the policy right" doesn't just mean choosing the best solution to various national problems, but also choosing the policy that would entice both sides into voting for it.  And two years of mindless, incoherent, and almost universal Republican obstructionism conclusively demolished the idea that succeeding at politics has anything to do with just finding the correct proposal.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

There are no silver linings for the GOP today

What's with this silly new meme that the health care ruling isn't as bad for Republicans as it looks? 

No, wrong. It was a rout. A total defeat. It was a disaster for conservatives, who managed to somehow put their most-hated law in front of a court with 5 very sympathetic conservative justices (including, it seems, the crucial swing vote!) and still come away with essentially nothing at all.

Republicans got two things out of this:

1.  The court accepted Randy Barnett's strange economic activity/inactivity argument, and said economic inactivity falls outside the scope of the commerce clause.  The government, it turns out, cannot  force you to eat your broccoli, and broccoli-haters are safe, at least from criminal sanctions.  But the government has other perfectly allowable means to make you eat your vegetables, such as:
  • Reward you for eating broccoli
  • Tax you for not eating broccoli
In other words, us big-government liberals haven't actually lost any policy tools.  People are acting as if the federal government will be hampered by the inability to unconditionally compel economic participation, but guess what?  Nobody actually wants to do that.  It's not a useful economic tool in just about any circumstance.  What's especially silly is the idea that Roberts somehow accepted the ACA in order to open political space in which he could seriously damage the commerce clause power.  But liberals would happily take that trade, too: universal health care is among the most far-reaching ambitions of the progressive project.  Contra the Tea Party, we don't actually lie awake at night dreaming feverishly of the day when all economic behavior will occur at federal gunpoint.

The Court could have also noted that the commerce clause does not permit the federal government to legislate the weather on Venus, and while you might technically consider that a curtailment, it would have approximately the same effect on progressive policymaking as this ruling does.

2.  The Medicaid extension was limited, and states can now reject the federal money for it, and the coverage expansion requirements that come with it.  

They can, but they won't.  The federal matching funds are extremely heavily weighted in the states' favor, with 90% of the total spending coming from the nation's coffers.  (Initially, that number is actually 100%.)  For comparison, ordinary Medicaid matching funds range from about 65% to 50%--and nobody rejects those

Even if some podunk Republican governor in some podunk red state wants to make a statement by refusing the funds, his resistance can't last for long.  Rejecting the funds will put a serious strain on the state's poor, as they'll still be subject to the mandate (oops, I mean, personal responsibility tax?).  That in turn will open up a huge political opportunity.  State governments love handing out benefits when they can afford it, because it breeds a lot of political goodwill.  I don't care how die-hard an executive is, it's ridiculous to think that ideology could result in a 9:1 federal match being left on the table for more than one term.  Political challengers could truthfully make wild commitments to massively improve access to care (and on the cheap, too!).  Any enterprising executive will quickly realize that they're better off knuckling under, partisan preferences notwithstanding.  D or R, you probably like free money.

If anything, this new twist is lousy for Republicans, because it gives the dumber Republican governors enough string to hang themselves.  Reject the Medicaid expansion, get hammered by a Democratic challenger promising the world.

No, these things aren't silver linings, they're just speedbumps on the way to full implementation of the ACA. Federal provision and regulation of universal health care is proceeding apace, it's as big as ever, and it's here to stay.

But hey, maybe Mitt Romney will save you, Republicans.  

PPACA A-OK (but it was even closer than you thought)

Don't expect coherent posting from me for a while, just variations on "Woo!" and "Yes!" interspersed with some rhetorical random fist-pumping and, I don't know, ecstatic, amped-up Bon Jovi-style guitar riffs.

But before I get to that, let me make two observations about today's health care ruling:

First: it was way closer to being a total disaster than I ever imagined.  I was decidedly pessimistic about the whole affair, but I figured the court would ditch, at most, the mandate and guaranteed issue.  The law, however, contains dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller, almost completely unrelated provisions.  I didn't doubt that Scalia and Thomas, who have never exactly embraced practicality in their jurisprudence, would toss out the whole law without blinking.  But Alito and Roberts I was less certain of.  And there was of course Justice Kennedy to protect us, who always seems so sincerely tortured in these situations.  Justice Kennedy might want to kill the mandate, but would he really want to delete the entirety of the largest reform bill passed by Congress in forty-five years?  Of course not, don't be insane.

Turns out Kennedy was more than ready to kill the entire Act.  Roberts, by accepting the tax rationale, didn't just save the mandate, he saved every inch of the ACA.  It was a knife-edge decision; all or nothing.

Second: there's another way this might have gone horribly wrong for the administration, one that's been so far overlooked as best as I can tell.  Here's the vote breakdown on the Medicaid extension:

  • 3 justices deemed it unconstitutional, but severable using the Medicaid severability provision (which isn't in the ACA at all)
  • 2 justices deemed it constitutional
  • 4 justices deemed it unconstitutional and not severable, either
Notice anything funny there?  There's a plurality of justices who want to kill the entire law based on the Medicaid extension.  In other words, if we're just counting votes the normal way, the law should be dead.  And not only that, but dead at the hands of a minority of the Court, entirely drawn from the conservative wing and mostly consisting of the Court's most conservative members.  

What actually ended up happening is that Sotomayor and Ginsburg, who thought the provision was constitutional, nonetheless made a strange, hypothetical argument in the alternative: if the law did just so happen to be unconstitutional, well, they'd rather use the Medicaid severability provision than deep-six the entire Act.  So in the end, the Medicaid extension was deemed to be unconstitutional by a 7-2 majority, but severable by a different 5-4 majority.  

Now, there's been some confusion about the fact that Scalia's dissent appears to have been written as the Court's opinion, using strange phrasing that doesn't usually appear in dissents.  The conspiratorial view is that last-minute pressure from the White House forced Roberts to switch sides.  But I think there's a more likely explanation: the votes had been taken and the opinion was obviously shaping up as a disaster.  The mandate had been thoroughly tried in the court of public opinion, and been found wanting.  The Medicaid extension, by contrast, is not only popular, but highly sought-after by most states, who, after all, never miss an opportunity to gobble up federal money.  And this was a lot of federal money; a nine-to-one match, to be precise.  It's hard to imagine a way to more completely politicize and delegitimize the Supreme Court than to have a minority of conservative justices kill an enormous, landmark law based on states' inability to opt out of a provision that they're all going to opt into, anyway.  Faced with looming disaster, some votes were traded and creatively counted to make everything work out okay.  But as a result, Scalia and Company didn't know if they'd be dissenters or the majority until the very end.

Somehow, though, we dodged all these obstacles and everything worked out okay. Back to the good stuff.

Epic day

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A brief profile of the man who determines whether 40 million Americans get health insurance

I said some mean stuff about Justice Kennedy a few days ago, and if all goes according to schedule, I'll probably be saying some mean stuff about him in the days to come, too.

But right now, I'm going to say something a little bit nice about him, which is that one can hardly doubt that he is among the most earnest of all the Justices.  Someone who did not mean what he said would surely say things a little more memorably or find someone else to say them for him.  Watching Kennedy attempt to pour his opinions onto the page always feels to me a bit like watching someone trying to pull a very large and lumpy blob of clay through a very small opening.  Maybe it gets there eventually, but it's all twisted up and you can't really tell what it was supposed to be in the beginning.  And yeah, maybe it was ill-advised to let him do it, but my god, you can really tell he exerted himself in the process.

Inflation is a real thing, movie-people

Looks like the The Avengers is poised to overtake Titanic as the second highest-grossing movie of all time, having produced about $600 million and counting in domestic box office.  Titanic, for the record, pulled down $648 million.

"But wait!" you might say.  "I would not want to impugn The Avengers, because it is a rollicking thrill ride featuring Earth's mightiest heroes and the ever-sharp writing of Joss Whedon of Buffy fame, but is really it a cultural phenomenon on the order of Titanic?  Have thirteen-year-old girls and forty-year-old women alike flocked to see it five, six, ten times in the theater?  How could this quintessential piece of summer fluff, no matter how well-constructed, compare to James Cameron's magnum opus, which won basically every Academy Award in existence and forced its principals' careers down ludicrous paths as they tried to escape its shadow or build on their success, no one more ludicrously than Cameron himself, a blockbuster filmmaker turned deep-sea explorer?"

Well, it can't.  For reasons that continue to boggle my mind, movie grosses are always reported mechanically, with one absolute sum stacked up against the next, no matter what span of years separates the two.  You couldn't do this in any other economic arena, no matter how serious or unserious, because, like, inflation is a thing, guys.  It's a practice often leading to absurd results, most namely the way in which genre-defining, culture-altering hits such as Star Wars are regularly bested at the box office by cinematic gems like, oh, I don't know, Pirate of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man's Chest, or, god forbid, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.  What's bizarre, though, is the sheer determination with which the industry and news outlets alike ignore this incredibly important detail.  Nobody today looks at wages and says "Well, they're easily the highest they've ever been!"  Nobody looks at car prices circa 1950 and says "A new Ford for $8000?  What a bargain!"  In all other realms of life there is  acknowledgement that things just used to be a lot cheaper and money worth a lot more.  And yet barely anyone ever stops for a second to consider that this universally recognized reality makes all box office records you've ever heard next to worthless.  Even bringing it up triggers bored eye-rolls from just about everyone, because, inflation, you egghead?  What do you think this is, macroeconomic theory class?

I'd say that the movie industry has a vested interest in shilling its Next Biggest Thing, and ignoring inflation virtually ensures that its Next Biggest Thing will also be One of the Biggest Things of All Time.  But surely, after a while, this just hurts the industry too.  After all, if a movie grosses the same as Star Wars, Gone With the Wind, or (okay, even adjusting for inflation, this next one made a lot of money) Avatar, you'd expect it to be pretty darn good.  But when you say "I heard the new Shrek movie made the fifth-most money of all time, putting it ahead of the last Shrek movie!"  ...well, the whole thing starts to lose a little bit of its luster, doesn't it?

Anyway, turns out that if you adjust for inflation, order is restored to the universe.  Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon drops 103 places, barely edging out Meet the Fockers.  Tell me that doesn't seem more right to you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Re: the long national nightmare that is John Edwards

Apparently he's now split with Rielle Hunter.  I only know because a news item saying so popped up at the top of Slate and I clicked in morbid curiosity.  But the article seems to be drawn from an alternate universe in which Edwards is spooling up his reelection campaign:
For those keeping track at home, that was right about when details from Hunter's new memoir What Really Happened began to generate headlines everywhere from gossip tabloids to political websites.
Who is "keeping track at home"?  The guy didn't generate that kind of buzz when he was actually running for president.  Who is the audience for this stuff?  I know for a fact that the politicos haven't given him three seconds' thought since it was apparent he would never hold national office again... but a dull, vain, and fundamentally unserious presidential also-ran doesn't seem like much a draw for the Perez Hilton crowd, either.  Just go away, John Edwards.  Please.  Just go away.

Monday, June 25, 2012

One more health care post under the wire

Here's Simon Lazarus in The New Republic, criticizing the administration for not defending their law's legal merits:
 When Republican governors and attorneys general filed their lawsuit challenging the ACA, they knew that there was agreement among both conservative and liberal constitutional experts that their claims had little merit, in light of multiple decades-old precedents. So Republicans and their allies in the legal world organized a campaign to shift the legal—and, critically, the political—consensus. With characteristic acuity, the central legal architect of the Right’s strategy, Randy Barnett, predicted in December 2010 that, “if the Court views the Act as manifestly unpopular, there may well be five Justices who are open to valid objections they might otherwise resist.”

...the Obama administration and its congressional allies famously declined to prioritize public defense of the ACA. After the law was signed and the opposition lawsuits were filed, the White House ramped up its ACA messaging operation. But even then, the near exclusive focus was to spotlight ACA benefits, with virtually no rap about why the law is constitutional.
 He's right and he's wrong.  It can't be restated enough what a bamboozle the GOP has run on this, effectively transforming a settled constitutional question into an open constitutional question by exploiting the slack-jawed willingness of the punditocracy to accept all party assertions as roughly equivalent.

But was the better approach really for Obama and Co. to go on television and argue constitutional law?  It's a field that most people have even less direct experience with than the esoterica of large-scale health care delivery mechanisms. The administration is correct on the merits, but do average Americans--on either side--have any chance of figuring that out on their own?  No, they do not.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Constitutional law is essentially fraudulent.  Everyone--from the Supreme Court on down--values their actual political beliefs more than they value fuzzy divinations lifted out of a 220-year old piece of paper.  Lazarus admits as much in his own article, when he notes that an unpopular health care law is more likely to be overturned.  If focusing purely on legal arguments isn't going to convince the Supreme Court of the United States, why would we expect it to convince the broader population?

There are a lot of reasons the health care law is unpopular. First and foremost, it hasn't actually gone online yet; there's also the frustrating fact that many of the people who voted for it have spinelessly refused to defend it in public.  Barack Obama's reluctance to cite Wickard v. Filburn at the bully pulpit is not one of those reasons.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Americans don't realize economy is bad, still vote based on it

Aparently, Americans are relatively okay with the local economy--whatever locale they happen to inhabit.  On the other hand, they're extremely gloomy about the national economy.  If you follow the link, you'll see that Republicans are a lot more worried than Democrats or independents, but nobody is exactly buzzing with optimism here:

So, I find this graph... problematic.  

I've always assumed that the incredible power of economic conditions to drive election outcomes is because the actual economy transmits information to a wide audience with an alacrity that the political economy can't hope to match.  No matter what Mitt Romney or Barack Obama say or do, the majority of Americans will never hear their platforms in full, will never be able to recite their talking points, and will never know who bested whom in the daily rough-in-tumble of campaign politics.  But virtually everyone is at some level an economic actor, and when the economy tanks, tangible effects ripple out almost immediately to even the most parochial or low-information voters.

But I find it difficult to square this view with the findings here.  The seemingly-widespread belief that the economy is really, really bad right now seems to be grounded in people's evaluation of national conditions--conditions with which they have little firsthand experience.  Conditions they can only know about through the same unreliable news reporting that struggles to transmit political messages.  

How does this work?  Imagine a hypothetical world where the economy was exactly the same, but news organizations for some reason neglected to report any bad economic news.  Every day, the newspaper and television was filled with glowing reports of booming industry and rising employment.  Would people continue to honestly rate local conditions as being mediocre, and if so, still vote against the incumbent in large numbers?  Or do people need to have, I don't know, an 80% confidence rate in the local economy before incumbency becomes safe?  Maybe the transmutation of economic performance into political effects is so subtle that it's literally unconscious.

And if concerns about the nation at large are, in fact, important, why do they seem to matter so much more than political considerations, which get, if anything, larger amounts media coverage and emphasis?  Does Joe Schmoe, watching the nine o'clock news, space out during political segments and then perk up for the monthly unemployment figures?  Something in this picture doesn't really make sense.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Health care armageddon on Monday

While no one really knows what the court is going to do, overturning the ACA to any degree will make this one of the biggest Supreme Court decisions of all time.  (I was going to say "Regardless of what the court decides, this will be one of the biggest decisions of all time."  But that's not really true at all, is it?  Upholding the law means commerce clause powers remain pretty much exactly as expansive as everyone thought they were until 2011 or so.)

Plenty of ink has been spilled on this already, and I don't have much to add.  You want awful horse-racey coverage?  Go read literally any halfway respectable news outlet.

On second thought, don't.  Because that horse-race coverage is a huge part of the problem here.  I've read any number of godawful articles on the subject that start out by noting that overturning the law will be a huge defeat for the Obama administration... and then basically stop there, too.

Hey, how about breaking down what overturning the law will mean for everyone else?  A negative Supreme Court decision may or may not impact Obama's political fortunes come November--and, I think, could actually energize the Democratic base in a pretty major way--but there is absolutely no doubt that it would impact the lives of millions upon millions of people.  It would disrupt state governments in a way that's hard to even describe.  It would cause complete chaos of a sort that has nothing to do with party politics.  

But to read most of the reporting about the law, this decision is primarily about whether Obama gets to notch a W or an L over health care.  It casts the two options as roughly equivalent; a zero-sum, binary choice: Ds v. Rs.  Either way someone wins, either way someone loses.  Root for the home team.  And not only does that disguise the enormity of what's probably about to happen, it also enables idiots who attack the law without addressing its actual policy merits.  This is especially problematic when you consider that one Justice Anthony Kennedy is, forever and above all else, an idiot.  

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The city of the future is really boring

Via Yglesias:
[N]ew guidelines [in Hollywood] will make it easier for developers to build more and higher buildings around subway stations and bus stops. Supporters, which include business groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, say it is a visionary change that will allow Hollywood to fully realize a decade-long transformation from a seedy haven for drug dealing and prostitution into a smartly planned, cosmopolitan center of homes, jobs, entertainment and public transportation.
I'm as much in support of the new liberal approach to city planning as anyone. But a "smartly planned, cosmopolitan center" of mixed commerce and residential space? That could describe virtually any growth area in the country right now. The future of city planning is bright, but it's also full of dully homogeneous cities.  If the planners get their way, everywhere from Charlotte to Hollywood to Dallas will look roughly like this:

I genuinely believe people will be happier living in these cities, but it's hard to deny you can't get rid of the blight and seediness and inefficiency without also getting rid of a lot of the local texture.

The policy solution, I think, is historic preservation; ultimately, I doubt it's really good enough.  Saving a few building fronts won't turn back the market forces the liberalizers want to unleash on our cities.  And anyway, the liberalizers hate historic preservation too.  Ultimately, this is a problem for philosophers and artists, not for planner and policymakers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Facebook buys rudimentary face-recognition technology; will soon be able to identify human beings by looking at them

In a canny business move, Facebook bought a company which has developed a program for identifying and automatically tagging people in pictures.  Predictably, privacy advocates are already starting to flip out, but have they considered the range of possibilities opened up by this technological advance?  Too long have human beings stared at their pictures in bewilderment, wondering things like "Who is that guy standing next to me?" and "Which of my friends is which?"  Soon, with the power the microchip and the Internet, we'll be able to conclusively resolve these eternal and perplexing questions.

Okay, so, obviously, I'm skeptical of the privacy concerns here.  There's already a platform that comes preloaded with some of the best facial recognition software imaginable: our brains.  It might be surprising to be identified by a computer, but it's hard to imagine very many contexts in which a person couldn't have done so, with twice the accuracy and half as much data about you.

Yes, this technology could probably be mildly abused in some contexts.  Someone with a very high level of access to Facebook--so basically, Mark Zuckerberg, or in some scenarios, national governments--might be able to conduct a sort of Facebook-wide search for an individual, identifying pictures he's appeared in and who he has appeared in pictures with.  Of course, in most situations, the exact same thing could be done with access to the pictures themselves, some functioning human eyeballs, and a little bit of clever detective work.

In the meantime, for the rest of us, this is actually a fairly amazing piece of technology.  It saves time and makes it easier to divine the social linkages that are the raison d'ĂȘtre of social networking.  Privacy advocates  sometimes appear to labor under the strange belief that social networks like Facebook exist in order to give account-holders a secret bubble in which to build unviewable profiles.  But that's not quite right, is it?  People join networks to see and be seen, and most of Facebook's supposedly-creepy new tech just serves as a means to that end.

Well, except, ten bucks says it doesn't work and tags people all wrong.  Facebook has 800 million faces to draw from, after all.  There's bound to be someone else on it who looks like you.  Most likely, in order to fix this problem, the system will be designed to draw its guesses from a narrow pool of people who the network already closely associates with you, meaning that it doesn't add a whole lot of new Creepy Spying Functionality above and beyond what the network is already capable of.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Adventures in relative measures, or, nice try, Slate

With all due respect to its authors, I'm not sure I see how this map should "panic the Obama campaign." It's a clever little piece of work showing that job growth in swing states is lower than the national mean.   (Well, with the inconvenient exceptions of Colorado and Indiana, two of the very swingiest of states.)  From a policy perspective, I guess that's interesting.  But from a political perspective, it's meaningless.  People don't assess the current administration by evaluating their state's performance in relation to the national average.  "I'm voting against Obama because, while he was president, Virginia grew less quickly than Texas" is not a sentence a swing voter will ever utter.  If job growth was to explode through the roof in California tomorrow, swing states would move even further from the mean and get even bluer on the map, but would anyone argue that Obama's reelection chances had been damaged?

Obama and co. should obviously be more than a little concerned about the anemic recovery (and not only because it hurts his reelection prospects--lots of people are suffering out there!).  But the only thing that matters on this map is the bit in the corner that says "national growth: 1.3%."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thou shalt not impeach the integrity of the Supreme Court's motives

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I clicked on the NY Times' short article about Scalia's new book.  I should have known it would turn out to be the kind of legal journalism I despise.
Justice Antonin Scalia picked the right moment, then, to deliver more than 500 pages of hints, in a book to be published next week. He wrote it with Bryan A. Garner, and it is an overview and summation of the justice’s approach to making sense of statutes and the Constitution. 
It is also studded with telling asides and intimations about past and future decisions. 
Justice Scalia writes, for instance, that he has little use for a central precedent the Obama administration has cited to justify the health care law under the Constitution’s commerce clause, Wickard v. Filburn. 
In that 1942 decision, Justice Scalia writes, the Supreme Court “expanded the Commerce Clause beyond all reason” by ruling that “a farmer’s cultivation of wheat for his own consumption affected interstate commerce and thus could be regulated under the Commerce Clause.” 
That position is good evidence, particularly when coupled with Justice Scalia’s skeptical questioning at the arguments in the health care case in March, that the administration will not capture his vote.
Can't we all acknowledge that Scalia's objection to the health care law comes from party-driven ideology first and his detailed analysis of Supreme Court precedent second?  When we pretend that the justices are acting in good faith, we immunize their decisions from criticism.  It's the Curse of the Law Student: when you can't question the other side's integrity without causing fainting fits, every argument always ends, somehow, delving deep into the utterly pointless minutiae of constitutional law.  At which point everyone who isn't completely myopic stops caring. Whoever wins, we lose.

In reality, judges who decide on highly political issues are usually relying on the same highly political considerations as the rest of us.  They shouldn't be insulated from political criticism in the process.

The Times writer probably realizes this too--even a Supreme Court reporter couldn't fail to miss the ridiculous and convenient inconsistencies in some of the positions Scalia takes in the book:
Justice Scalia acknowledges one powerful limit on his commitment to textualism. Court precedents must ordinarily be respected even when they were based on misguided readings of the relevant texts, he writes, under the doctrine of “stare decisis,” which is (according to Mr. Garner’s “Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage”) Latin for “to stand by things decided.” 
But there are exceptions to the doctrine, Justice Scalia writes. For instance, he says, “the Supreme Court should not give stare decisis effect to Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 decision that identified a constitutional right to abortion.
But the strangeness goes mostly unremarked upon, because it would impolitic to suggest that the Sacred Nine think anything like normal human beings.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Our suicidal tendencies

One of the great problems of dystopian science fiction is that its societies can seem so implausibly self-destrutive.  It's hard to show an overall devolution of human welfare in a society where technological potential has increased, unless the people using fictional technologies are also treating each other worse than people do today.  But the results often just seem silly: oppressive governments inflicting misery just because.

Think about something like Fahrenheit 451.  Ray Bradbury paints a pretty bleak picture, and sure, the imagery is evocative, but did you ever stop and think about why the novel's firemen burn books?  Censorship happens in the real world, of course--but don't censors usually specifically target ideas they don't like?  There's no real implication of conventional political repression in the book; just pointless violence against bookowners, never mind their sympathies.  It's like if Time Warner Cable took over the world.  And at the end of the book (spoiler alert, I guess?) millions of people pointlessly die in a nuclear war that, ultimately, doesn't seem to benefit society's gatekeepers so much as the book-reading rebels hiding out in the woods.

Science fiction is replete with this sort of self-destructive behavior on the part of ill-intentioned governments and corporations, and it mostly rings false.

But maybe it rings a little more false than it should.  Sometimes, it turns out, inexplicable forces--social forces? psychological forces?--can drive even real-life society to act implausibly suicidal as well.  Coming down through the tubes today is one very small example of this very bad behavior:
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region is at high risk for flooding, and lawmakers and officials in the state are trying to plan for the sea-level rise expected as a result of climate change. But they’re running into a problem: some Republicans refuse to accept the terms “sea level rise” or “climate change.”
The BBC reports how state Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and state Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together this year to get a bill passed that provides $50,000 for a “comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt.” The bill’s original draft contained the term “relative sea level rise,” but the version that eventually passed used the term “recurrent flooding” instead, at Stolle’s suggestion. “Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming,” Stolle told the BBC. “What matters is people’s homes are getting destroyed, and that’s what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we’re here or not.”
Stolle went further in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot. He told the newspaper that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term.”
Fortunately, it doesn't seem the change will affect the substantive outcome of the study.  But changes like this do certainly, as they accumulate, substantively affect efforts to mitigate climate change.  It's hard to fight back against a crisis that no one believes exists or won't name out loud.  And it's not like there's no history of  the results of climate studies getting buried by political forces, too.

What strikes me most, though, is the sheer pointlessness of the Republican opposition to climate science. The blame, of course, doesn't totally fall on the GOP--Democrats have diligently avoided the topic, too.  But Democrats at least face the risk of driving votes towards the opposition.  If the Republican party decided, in a concerted way, to start worrying about climate change, disaffected voters would have nowhere to go.  And public opinion, which is as informed by party views as much as anything else, would probably shift in favor of more proactive measures.  Everyone wins: after all, if sea levels rise and weather patterns change, Republican children will suffer, too.

Instead, we get stuff like this: unnecessary, self-defeating measures that would be hard to believe if it showed up in a piece of fiction.

If Romney commits a gaffe in a forest, and nobody's around...

Did anyone hear Mitt Romney's gaffe earlier?  Pundits on Twitter are already breaking it down.  Will it hurt his polling numbers?  Was it  better or worse than Obama's "private sector" gaffe last week?  As for what Romney actually said, it was... well... it was something to do with firefighters, policemen, and... uh... Wisconsin, maybe?  Or firing people.  Or something.  Honestly, I have no idea.

Obviously, about two minutes of trawling through Google will rectify my ignorance.  But before I go do that, let's stop and take a second to think about how silly this whole exercise is.

Romney's apparent gaffe can't hurt him if nobody knows what it was.  And yet, here I am, a guy with a Twitter feed composed entirely of Washington cognoscenti and political commentators, a guy who works in the office of a fairly notable politician, and a guy who habitually refreshes the New York Times homepage, and I don't have the first idea what even happened.  In fact, I always learn about this sort of thing way after the fact, weeks later, as the actual statement is slowly being rendered into meaningless mush by the relentless churning of the he-said-she-said commentary machine.

Obviously it's always dangerous to generalize from personal, anecdotal experience.  I could be a fluke here.  But I doubt it.  These things always seem make a very big splash in a pretty shallow pond.  And I think the point is instructive: it's good to remember that if you're politically aware enough to talk about politics, you probably far outstrip the average voter.  The last couple of years have seen a lot of debate about the power of economic fundamentals to drive elections, as compared to campaign ephemera.  It's a point I find convincing--not because politicians' arguments aren't compelling or their gaffes aren't damning, but because "what Mitt Romney said today" is not something most people know or care about.  By way of comparison, you don't have to watch CNN to know the economy is bad.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Breaking: Bloomberg declares war on America

Let me be the first to say it: this is completely un-American.
Bloomberg plans a ban of large sizes for sugared drinks
The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.
Fortunately, there's a loophole:
At fast-food chains, where sodas are often dispersed at self-serve fountains, restaurants would be required to hand out cup sizes of 16 ounces or less, regardless of whether a customer opts for a diet drink. But free refills — and additional drink purchases — would be allowed.
Capitalist ingenuity defeats fascism yet again!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smoke, mirrors, and Trayvon Martin

I thought we had all agreed that the Trayvon Martin case was disturbing, tragic, and horrifying. But over the last couple days a counter-narrative has emerged that calls my previous assumption into question (not to mention the simple human decency of an entire subset of the American population).

Before I get into specifics, it might be helpful to go over the basic, established facts of the Martin case. Here is what we know to a relative certainty: a young black kid was walking through a subdivision. He was carrying nothing remotely resembling a dangerous weapon. A neighbor saw him, deemed him suspicious (we know this because he told the 911 dispatcher), and pursued him with a loaded gun. The dispatcher told him to stop but he persisted.

Then some other stuff happened, the details of which are extremely unclear.

After that, the kid was dead of a gunshot wound. The guy who by all accounts shot the kid is taken to the police station and released. He remains out of custody.

Gap aside, I thought this was a pretty damning sequence for the shooter, George Zimmerman. But very recently, I've seen multiple people--and I don't just mean people on the crazy fringes of the internet, but people I go to school with--attempt an evil slight of hand with the facts. They point to the gap--the handful of minutes where reports differ--and suggest that until we fill it in with hard facts, we can't really judge Zimmerman for shooting Martin. After all, who knows what really transpired? Maybe the police had a valid reason for letting the guy go.

I'm only posting this because, to my chagrin, I've already seen this trick stump too many well-meaning people. But isn't the answer obvious? Who cares what happened in those few minutes? Unless someone wants to argue that Martin took Zimmerman's gun and shot himself, there simply isn't a way to fill in that gap that leaves Zimmerman looking less than a racist, authoritarian murderer. He went out the door to pursue an unarmed child, and ended up shooting the child. Do we really need to know what the kid said in order to be sure that Zimmerman's at fault? And if Martin fought back--well, who could blame him? He was being pursued by a strange, armed man! Whatever his worst fears were, Zimmerman was them and more. Do we care why Zimmerman drew his gun and fired? Why did he ever leave his house in the first place? The unarmed Martin never had any intention of chasing Zimmerman, while the armed Zimmerman had every intention of chasing Martin.

I know the answers to these questions might have legal consequences, but they don't have moral consequences. They don't change any of the most appalling features of the case, nor do they dissolve the racism at its core. We'll never actually know what happened between Martin and Zimmerman, but we don't need to know, either. Killing an unarmed kid is plenty abhorrent, with context or without it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Just what does "post-racial" mean, anyway?

Despite my agreeing with 90% of its actual, substantive content, I'm still finding this post on Slate's XX Factor unbearably smug. I think it's mostly the conclusion:
For anyone who has fooled themselves into believing we live in a “post-racial” country, this glimpse into the besieged lives of people of color should quickly correct that misapprehension.
Ah, the old "post-racial" gambit. You see, kids, way back in 2008, when everyone was excited about the prospect of a black man becoming president, someone raised the question of whether America was becoming "post-racial." And ever since then, smarmy liberals have jumped on the term whenever possible, taking every opportunity to laugh at the poor saps who dared suggest that racial enmity and inequality have vanished.

The problem is that no one ever said that. As far as I know, not a single person who seriously talked about "post-racial America" construed the term to mean a present-day America without any sort of racial problems. The phrase always had a hopeful, aspirational element: think "America is becoming post-racial," not that America is post-racial. And more than that, it described less the conclusion of the problem of race than its transformation.

People today like to pretend that the country's current racial problems--the sort of low-level, relatively anonymous discrimination and inequality that hounds minorities--are the same problems we've always had. These people have totally forgotten (or, in some cases, strategically ignored) the Bad Old Days, when race was a very different type of problem altogether. I mean, there was a time, not very long ago, when plenty of people didn't see racial discrimination as a problem at all! They defended it! And I'm not talking about Jim Crow. I'm talking about people in my own lifetime, who didn't believe different races should marry, or live in close proximity. But today, there's a fairly strong consensus about how much race should matter in society, which is to say, not at all. Open racists have been essentially driven out of the public sphere.

To me, that's what "post-racial" means. A society in which the question of race has been settled, even if the problem has not been resolved. We're not colorblind, but color is no longer a basic organizing principle of the nation. On the whole, we're pretty canny about stereotypes, and we basically all agree that judging on the color of their skin is a scummy thing to do. (It still happens, but we're working on that, okay?)

Now, as we're periodically reminded--currently by the horrifying Trayvon Martin case--the progress we've made is insufficient to prevent awful, awful things from going down occasionally. And it's probably unfair to expect measured responses in the face of hate crimes. But I also sort of think that many liberals' refusal to acknowledge progress on race is actually harmful to their own cause. Attitudes about race have changed since the 50s, and the 70s, and even the 90s. That's not just laudable trend--it's also proof that things really can improve. That racial discrimination isn't a social ill inbuilt into our psyches or societies, but a pervasive historical trend that can be slowly pushed back. And look: it's really good to remind people of that. The best way to see that there's room for advancement is to look back and see how far America's come already. Is racial discrimination widespread? Yep. Is it deplorable? Of course. But is it eternal, like I've heard so many liberals claim? History says no.

And that's why I'd much prefer that race-conscious liberals reserve their criticism for actual discrimination. Turning sour and derisive whenever someone takes note of progress isn't going to motivate anyone to go make a difference. History says a post-racial country is possible, and if there are optimists out there who want to believe we're getting closer to it... well, maybe we should just let them.

I haven't abandoned this blog, it was just spring break

...and then the really busy week after spring break, where you have to do all the work that you were supposed to do while school was out, but didn't, because you were too busy basking in unnaturally warm weather and drinking beer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

HBO's adaptation of Mark Halperin's Game Change is the dumbest depiction of politics since Mark Halperin's Game Change

John McCain and Steve Schmidt talking VP options in July 2008:

JM: Lieberman is perfect. We're both mavericks who are hated by own parties. It would have a tremendous healing effect on the country.

SS: We can't win without our base. Lieberman is the right thing to do, but the wrong
way to win.

JM: Who can we win with?

SS: None of them.

JM: None of them?

SS: John, Obama just changed the entire dynamic. It is a change year, sir. We desperately need a game-changing pick. And none of these middle-aged white guys are game-changers.

Repeat ad nauseam for two hours.


Check out Rick Davis's sustained, bug-eyed stare while witnessing Sarah Palin on Youtube for the first time. The actual scene is even weirder than this conveys.


Now 13 minutes into the movie, and witnessing what I think is the third debate among McCain's staff on how (and this is a direct quote) "mavericky" McCain is.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What's Romney's worst-case scenario?

Let's get the most important thing out of the way first: Romney is still going to win the nomination. Super Tuesday might not have created the sort of unambiguously positive buzz he was looking for, but he escaped the day with something far more important: a commanding delegate lead. Momentum and buzz are ephemeral; delegates are forever.

But is there a scenario in which Romney doesn't win? Or, barring that, which scenario brings him the closest to losing?

It's an interesting question because the two possibilities are diametrically opposed. And it all depends on Newt Gingrich.

Scenario A: Newt Gingrich, finally exhausted of running a pointless candidacy, drops out.

Why it might hurt Romney: It lets the voters who oppose Romney finally coalesce around one candidate. For the first time in the entire campaign, Romney would have a single challenger. However small a plurality Romney commands, he still looms over his squabbling opponents. Santorum, as the last Real Republican standing, might attain a prominence that finally lets him compete with Romney on a relatively even field.

Why it might not: At the end of the day, Gingrich dropping out still brings Romney one step closer to surviving the primary. Romney would probably extend his delegate lead (see below), and he might get some good press out of the deal, too. Generally speaking, when the only thing standing between you and the presidential nomination is Rick Santorum, you're in good shape.

Scenario B: Gingrich, driven by a manic kamikaze zeal that will not fade until he has been rejected by every last Republican in North America, remains indefatigable, and pours millions of dollars more into the burning wreckage of his campaign.

Why it might hurt Romney: Because of the voters Gingrich is continuing to capture, a certain percentage would probably switch to Romney after Gingrich dropped out. Gingrich is therefore likely skimming some small number of delegates away from Romney, and keeping Romney's final total lower than it would otherwise be. In the most extreme case--which is, frankly, not going to happen--Romney is somehow prevented from winning an outright delegate majority. More likely, it prevents Romney from winning his majority until the far end of the race, shortening the general election and subjecting him to intra-party attacks for months to come.

Why it might not: However long he prolongs the election, Gingrich has performed a valuable service for Romney: he divided the Tea Party and kept the conservative wing of the GOP from winning a number of races it might have otherwise. Absent Gingrich, I find it doubtful Romney would have eked out victory in Ohio, Iowa, and maybe Michigan. Whatever delegates Romney has lost to Gingrich, Newt has also helped keep anti-Romney sentiment from snowballing. And to whatever extent anti-Romney sentiment might still snowball, Mitt should be glad Newt's still in the race.

Which scenario is more likely to hurt Romney? And which one is more likely, period? I'm leaning slightly towards Scenario B for both questions. Newt Gingrich is a megalomaniac and I just can't imagine him throwing in the towel. But if history is any guide, Mitt should want him to. I remember 2008. In particular, I remember the way that, as the Democratic primary drug on, the media campaign began mattering less and less, and the delegate math began mattering more and more. The larger Romney's delegate lead, the more he can ignore the daily campaign drama and plan for November. Too bad, because Newt's not going to give up his delegates without a fight.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Arming for the... well, something

So apparently, gun sales have shot through the roof in the last ten years, while per capita gun ownership has dropped significantly.

Kevin Drum mostly seems concerned with political and social explanations for this trend. I, by contrast, am mostly concerned with its obvious and necessary result: some people out there have armed themselves in a serious way. Might I suggest that we figure out who?

The Fourth Amendment outrage that wasn't

Liberals on Twitter are in a bit of a tizzy today about the latest Fourth Amendment rule from the Seventh Circuit:
US federal appeals court has ruled that mobile phones can be searched to some extent without a warrant. Abel Flores-Lopez, who was recently sentenced to prison in a drug case, had appealed his conviction, saying that police had acted illegally when they searched his cellphone for its number. However, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the case, saying that even if searching a phone required a warrant — a question that is far from settled in most places — searching simply for its number is so "minimally invasive" that police don't need to obtain one. Since the phone was readily available when the police stopped the suspect, "if police are entitled to open a pocket diary to copy the owner's address, they should be entitled to turn on a cellphone to learn its number."
I was prepared to get all worked up about this. Really, I was. I was going to write a whole bloggy diatribe about it. But then I realized... I just don't care that much. Try as I might, I just can't get very worked up about the court's decision. Frankly, it just doesn't seem like a very big deal to me. And that's telling.

Before I go any further, I want to be as clear as possible about my position on the Fourth Amendment. I'm not the world's biggest fan of consumer privacy rules, but privacy from government searches is another matter entirely. I'm a major advocate of a beefed-up, supercharged Fourth Amendment. Unlike private actions, the government's actions find their root in a collective ideal, and are undertaken for the collective good. And unlike most privacy rules, government privacy protections don't interfere in any way with the individual's prerogative to, well, be an individual.

What's more, government intrusions have a tendency to create more of the same. For complex reasons relating to the structure and application of popular Fourth Amendment legal tests--reasons I won't enumerate here (because I want you to read my law review note if it ever gets published (and also because it would take me about fifteen pages of text to explain them))--I believe very strongly that in the context of the search and seizure rules, the slippery slope fallacy is anything but. There are flaws built into the machinery of Fourth Amendment law that enable the degradation of privacy protections but inhibit their restoration. It's a belief that makes me extra-extra-paranoid about any Fourth Amendment decision favoring the government.

Still, take a step back and look at what the court's saying here. It's saying that once a cell phone is in police custody, cops are allowed to scroll through the phone and find its number without a warrant. All legal argumentation aside, it's a holding that seems eminently reasonable. Out in the real world, nobody thinks that checking a phone for its number is the same as trawling through its memory for buried secrets. Cops aren't fishing around for information--they're determining the most basic properties of the object in their position. I'm sure, to them, it seemed perfectly perfunctory, just like it would to us, if we found the phone at a restaurant. It's like checking the license plate on a car, or the return address on a letter.

Now, there's no doubt that this sort of reasoning could lead to genuinely disturbing rulings down the line, as it gets expanded and applied to all sorts of vaguely analogous fact patterns. But the court wasn't facing those fact patterns. While I think judges have some obligation to consider the precedential value of their holdings, they also have to address the case at hand. And it's hard to ask any judge to interrupt completely mundane police work with high-minded constitutional theories, particularly when those theories would seem totally alien to the vast, vast majority of the population. Sometimes even nerds like me have to admit that the strongest rejoinder to their arguments is, "Yeah, but who cares?"